I listened to a conversation with a smart guy named David Krakauer recently. He’s the current head of the Santa Fe Institute which is a place where super-smart types go to hang out and think about things. Good job, eh? He studies the evolution of complexity with an interest in what he calls ‘stupidity’.
He remarks that lots of people study excellence and success and intelligence but few ask questions about being stupid. He uses a Rubik’s Cube to describe stupid. The cube can be solved randomly in a billion squared moves or so. Thus, with enough time (more time than has existed in the universe), anyone can solve the cube. So Krakauer sets the smart/stupid bar at the random solution to the Rubik’s Cube. ‘Smart’ is when we learn steps that help us solve the cube. We remember those steps and use them to formulate a plan to make success easier and faster. In this case, it’s learning how to spin the cube to align the colors on all faces. By doing so, we are able to solve the puzzle faster than we could making random moves. I’ve never solved the cube but knew a girl who could take any random cube and solve it in less than thirty seconds. (Go here to find a solution to the cube.)
‘Stupid’ is when we perform in a way that will never, ever lead to success such as learning how to align the colors on one face only. You will never be able to beat the cube by aligning one face only. Without learning how the faces interact you fall into the trap of doing the same thing while expecting different results. He argues that what we call intelligence and IQ are really just a trained memory and that ‘smart’ is the ability to make complex things simple.
I would tone Krakauer’s language down. The question for mortals isn’t stupid or smart. It’s good decisions that make our days happy and fulfilling. We don’t all play with spinning cubes but we do all charge through our day making hundreds of decisions. Some we think about and many we don’t. We often make the same decisions thinking that this time will be different. I think that if I yell or if I get down on the level of my nine-year-old or if I set the timer for fifteen minutes, surely they will get the picture this time? But they don’t. And you don’t. I don’t. Most times that’s okay. The world will not collapse if your child doesn’t make their bed. Sometimes it’s important. Have you spent more this month than you’ve made? I’ve done that. It’s math that doesn’t work in the long run. Spending more than you make is a habit that will finally catch up with you. So take the question seriously. What are you doing today expecting to get different results that you do every other day?
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A very good read about decision making and the brain: